The Psychology of Gaming: What does the evidence really tell us?

After my appearance yesterday on CNN, I thought it best to delve into this subject matter a bit deeper. I’ve invited Andrea M. Letamendi, M.S. to guest post. She is a contributor at Geek Girls Network and my brother’s girlfriend.

Video games can be considered one of our “informal learning environments” because they inadvertently produce learners who possess a variety of psychomotor and cognitive abilities. For instance, a “side effect,” of leisurely gaming is the development and sharpening of visual-spatial skills, including iconic representation and spatial visualization. Not bad for an after-school activity.).

Very little is known, however, about the specific brain mechanisms involved in prolonged gaming. Through experience, we can only conjecture that neurobiological systems are activated—what else explains the vivid dreams (and sometimes nightmares) involving explosions, gunfire, and dismembered droids that follow four uninterrupted, obsessive hours of Battlefront just before bed? And how might we interpret that subjective feeling we get when we employ a combination successfully or unlock a level? Yes, that feeling—both a psychological and physiological alleviation of tension and resulting micropleasure—that gamers say they unequivocally crave.

Disinterest, boredom, or aversion toward gaming are psychological states that must also be explored for us to better understand the differential appeal of video games. Perhaps you walk past a television screen that’s displaying a baseball game—or Inside Sportfishing, Big Brother, The View, or anything you’re likely to ignore—and the response feels like…neurobiological static. Cerebral silence. Brain crickets. Nothing seems to be firing in any part of your body, let alone your cortex. Your neurological pleasure zones seem to be in hibernation mode despite exposure to vibrant images and sounds. Some people experience this subjective cognitive static when you put a controller in their hands. After the initial shudder—we must wonder, why are some people’s brains aroused by gaming while others experience cerebral static?

Clearly, we need empirical evidence to support any psychological theory of gaming. Unfortunately, the state of the science is far from satisfying gamers and non-gamers alike when it comes to conclusive evidence about personality, neurobiological, or even gender differences explaining the appeal of video games. A few scientific highlights are mentioned here to give readers a sense of the current knowledge in this area—and what we can expect at the next level of scientific discoveries. I, too, hope for an Easter egg.

Personality Traits
Psychologists have found that certain personality characteristics are associated with gaming, and may explain the initial attraction. Online gamers, for instance, score higher on traits of openness, conscientiousness, and extraversion than non-players. These traits drive our motivation to learn and allow for flexibility of “training” (i.e., tolerating trial-and-error in order to master a task). Gamers with these traits are therefore not only eager to learn but operate with resilience and perseverance—characteristics that are certainly necessary for killing those pesky Jedi on Coruscant.

Right: Killing. Research findings about video games that contain violent themes have caused much debate within the mental health community. Without question, violent gameplay is associated with negative psychological traits by today’s sociocultural standards. Child studies, for instance, point to increased hostility and aggressive cognitions among youths who play violent video games. But before we pull the plug and assign a therapist we must take a critical perspective. As consumers of science, we are often thrown a chicken-or-egg dilemma; in this version, we are constantly told that gaming and child aggression are intertwined and yet we’re given little evidence for where or how the cycle began—and if there are any third parties involved (parenting, anyone?). Many American youth are exposed to a lot of television violence, for instance, and do not exhibit abnormal aggression—therefore, mere exposure is not sufficient to explain behavioral effects of violent gaming.

A truly understudied area surrounds initial motivation for violent gameplay. What draws a player toward Halo, Mortal Kombat, or Grand Theft Auto?* Here’s the deal: It is unlikely that any one process or trait fully explains entry into virtual violence. Indeed, scientists are beginning to elucidate the complex systems that may predict a person’s attraction to violent gaming. Preliminary research shows that, even though trait aggression plays a role in predicting some preference for violent content, it was the level of competence and autonomy during gameplay that predicted a person’s desire for violent games overall. This finding may explain the high prevalence of gamers—men and women alike—who are bright, self-directed, and competitive. Anything but hostile.

Brain studies
Brain imaging is, to scientists, what Mad Men’s Joan is to Sterling Cooper: hard to get your hands on and extremely sexy. Neuroimaging studies demonstrate increased activation in areas of the mesocorticolimbic system—essentially the reward system in the brain—during computer gaming. This effect was stronger among males. Scientists posit that the reason men are more likely to spend excessive amounts of time gaming stems from this higher activation in the reward hub of their brains.

”My mesocorticolimbic system is forcing me to play Yu-Gi-Oh!”

A similar study showed increased cerebral blood volume in the prefrontal region of the brain during Donkey Kong play. This finding is highly unsurprising given that this part of the brain is responsible for decision-making and planning. Hurdling barrels apparently requires higher-order thinking.

Perhaps the most sophisticated neuroimaging study on violent gaming is one that employed (a) an actual violent video game, i.e., first-person shooter (see Image 2), (b) gamers, as in people that actually play video games, and (c) state-of-the art measurement of brain activity, i.e., functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The study found that experienced gamers had changes in activation in the areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Interestingly, they found that these brain changes occurred during exposure to violent moments of gameplay. In other words, violent scenes, not general arousal associated with gaming, ignited activity in specific regions of the brain. The authors posit that the active suppression of areas responsible for fear and empathy “improves the ability to react precisely in a violent situation and virtually kill opponents” (p. 954).

Addiction studies
With the release of next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) slated for 2012, a new category of mental illness termed “internet addiction disorder” (in which excessive gaming represents one variant) is gaining much attention. Some psychologists posit that certain character traits—perhaps the same ones that lead to alcoholism—may predispose individuals to spend hours online. One study, for instance, found that high levels of aggression and narcissism coupled with low self control is a common profile of individuals with online gaming addictions. However, many psychiatrists and research-practitioners argue that there is not enough evidence demonstrating a neurobiological basis akin to substance abuse disorders to render excessive gaming an addiction disorder.

Gaming makes you fat, depressed, and destined to live in your mother’s basement
A large problem surrounding the public’s knowledge of gaming effects—or any subject, for that matter—is how we receive messages from the scientific community. We can blame media spin (damn manipulating journalists!), a communication deficit on the part of out-of-touch scientists (damn snobby sciencey folk!), or what Carl Sagan describes as our inability to “knowledgeably question those in authority” (damn the increasingly dim-witted American public!). Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published findings on health-risk correlates and video game-playing among adults. The term correlates refers to mere associations—while the finding that gaming and high BMI’s go hand-in-hand is compelling, we know little about which came first. The American public, however, will read MSNBC’s article which subtly distorts the CDC’s findings with subheadings and phrases that imply causality. While some journalistic liberties are necessary, the general paradigm goes a little like this:

Direct message: Gaming leads to bad shit.
Indirect message: If you’re a gamer, society will hate you.
Submessage: Don’t be a gamer.

This is a crude representation of one news article, serving only to highlight the important role the media has in communicating scientific findings about things we really care about.

Whether an aptitude or an abnormality, gaming deserves more attention by the scientific community. Increasing knowledge in this area requires strong intersecting roles of technology, neurobiology, and scientific method. And of course, actual gamers!

*Full disclosure: I wrote this after four consecutive hours of Halo. All in the name of science.


Hoeft, F., Watson, C. L., Kesler, S. R., Bettinger, K. E., & Reiss, A. L. (2008). Gender differences in the mesocorticolimbic system during computer game-play. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42, 253-258.

Kim, E. J., Namkoong, K., Ku, T., & Kim., S. J. (2008). The relationship between online game addiction and aggression, self-control and narcissistic personality traits. European Psychiatry, 23, 212-218.

Mathiak, K., & Weber, R. (2006). Toward brain correlates of natural behavior: fMRI during violent video games. Human Brain Mapping, 27, 948-956.

Nagamitsu, S., Nagano, M., Yamashita, Y., Takashima, S., & Matsuishi, T. (2006). Prefrontal cerebral blood volume patterns while playing video games—A near-infrared spectroscopy study. Brain and Development, 28, 315-321.

Przybylski, A. K., Ryan, R. M., & Rigby, C. S. (2009). The motivating role of violence in video games. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 243-259.

Teng, C. I. (2008). Personality differences between online game players and nonplayers in a student sample. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11, 232-234.


  1. thanks for the insight! as with most things in life; moderation is key. as a parent of a 9 year old…it becomes increasingly hard to completely deny him access to these things. so we choose to control his access; by limiting the time he’s allowed to play; taking away game time as punishment for bad behaviour, etc. from my own childhood experience i know that being restricted only creates a desire for that which you are not allowed. in my case, rock music and booze!

  2. I think you nail it on the head, Barb: The true moderator in the equation is the parent. I’ll leave it to the politicians to decide if the “parent” is biological or legislative!

  3. Great article. My son is also nine and of course is obsessed with games. While we do limit his screen time we emphasize to him our rationale; he needs to be active to stay healthy. The message is getting through. As he gets older he does better at balancing his activities. What amazes me is his ability to work through the frustration til he gets it. While it drives me crazy to constantly hear “wait, I’m not done with this level” his persistence is admirable.

  4. My 7-year old has a tshirt that says ‘Just one more level Just one more level Just one more level’ – that being said, I’ve only bought one questionable game for him (Mario Smash Bros.) and do now regret letting him play it at 6 years old. While he understood he couldn’t go fight anyone, I did see a direct uptick in his more aggressive behavior. So I took the game away until just recently. Now I’m monitoring him more closely as he plays it (along with his sister) … as a whole games have been awesome for our entire family.

  5. Lots of good information. Here is my question for anyone who wants to do the research 🙂 Do child video gamers have a high correlation of becoming adult gamblers?

    The reason for my question is that while I don’t gamble (but I do appreciate all of you who come to Nevada to pay my taxes through gaming) I have seen a definite trend in the type of person on the gaming floor in the past few years. He/she is typically a smoking, unhappy, depressed, older, and generally unhealthy person. What has happened in our State is that as the bottom has fallen out of the gaming market, the clientèle in Nevada’s casino have distilled down to the hard-core gamblers.

    If there is any correlation between children who play video games and adult gambling then one needs only to walk parents around a Nevada casino and explain that this is what their children will be like if the do a lot of video gaming. Not that it would affect some parents.

    Actually, I could probably answer my own question by determining if there is any financial connection between the slot machine designers like IGT and video game designers. If there is a psychological connection between gaming and gambling, you can ‘bet’ that the slot machine makers know it and are exploiting it by promoting video gaming.

    For now our 4yo boy does not know that video gaming exists…we’ll see how long that lasts.

  6. Well it’s no secret that gaming is just a skinner box. However, the idea that gaming will make you a loser is about the same as saying vaccines cause autism. Neither is true. If you’re already pre-disposed to be a loser, then gaming won’t help that- in fact it’s been the cause of many relationships ending and people losing their jobs.

    I get all bristly when people have a problem with gaming. Probably because I’m a gamer- among other things. I still, however, find time to visit the gym, raise a four year old, run my own business, and work toward a PhD in psychology.

    Anyway, interesting blog post.
    .-= Melanie´s last blog ..When I Woke Up, It Was Still A Good Idea =-.

  7. thanks you for this remarkable article, i agree with you about scientific exploring in gaming behavior. i believe gaming can be a positive behavior if we explore it more.

  8. I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I’m not a violent person, I’m told that I’m very empathic and caring as well. And I’m overweight, but I play games less now than I did when I was in shape, the difference is that I find excuses not to go work out.


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